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Goldman Sachs Remains in the Spotlight

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Goldman Sachs has become a magnet for bad publicity.  Last week, I wrote a piece entitled, “Why Bad Publicity Never Hurts Goldman Sachs”.  On March 14, Greg Smith (a Goldman Sachs executive director and head of the firm’s United States equity derivatives business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa) summed-up his disgust with the firm’s devolution by writing “Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs” for The New York Times.  Among the most-frequently quoted reasons for Smith’s departure was this statement:

It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off.  Over the last 12 months I have seen five different managing directors refer to their own clients as “muppets,” sometimes over internal e-mail.

In the wake of Greg Smith’s very public resignation from Goldman Sachs, many commentators have begun to speculate that Goldman’s bad behavior may have passed a tipping point.  The potential consequences have become a popular subject for speculation.  The end of Lloyd Blankfein’s reign as CEO has been the most frequently-expressed prediction.  Peter Cohan of Forbes raised the possibility that Goldman’s clients might just decide to take their business elsewhere:

Until a wave of talented people leave Goldman and go work for some other bank, many clients will stick with Goldman and hope for the best.  That’s why the biggest threat to Goldman’s survival is that Smith’s departure – and the reasons he publicized so nicely in his Times op-ed – leads to a wider talent exodus.

After all, that loss of talent could erode Goldman’s ability to hold onto clients. And that could give Goldman clients a better alternative.  So when Goldman’s board replaces Blankfein, it should appoint a leader who will restore the luster to Goldman’s traditional values.

Goldman’s errant fiduciary behavior became a popular topic in July of 2009, when the Zero Hedge website focused on Goldman’s involvement in high-frequency trading, which raised suspicions that the firm was “front-running” its own customers.   It was claimed that when a Goldman customer would send out a limit order, Goldman’s proprietary trading desk would buy the stock first, then resell it to the client at the high limit of the order.  (Of course, Goldman denied front-running its clients.)  Zero Hedge brought our attention to Goldman’s “GS360” portal.  GS360 included a disclaimer which could have been exploited to support an argument that the customer consented to Goldman’s front-running of the customer’s orders.  One week later, Matt Taibbi wrote his groundbreaking, tour de force for Rolling Stone about Goldman’s involvement in the events which led to the financial crisis.  From that point onward, the “vampire squid” and its predatory business model became popular subjects for advocates of financial reform.

Despite all of the hand-wringing about Goldman’s controversial antics – especially after the April 2010 Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearing, wherein Goldman’s “Fab Four” testified about selling their customers the Abacus CDO and that “shitty” Timberwolf deal, no effective remedial actions for cleaning-up Wall Street were on the horizon.  The Dodd-Frank financial “reform” legislation had become a worthless farce.

Exactly two years ago, publication of the report by bankruptcy examiner Anton Valukas, pinpointing causes of the Lehman Brothers collapse, created shockwaves which were limited to the blogosphere.  Unfortunately, the mainstream media were not giving that story very much traction.  On March 15 of 2010, the Columbia Journalism Review published an essay by Ryan Chittum, decrying the lack of mainstream media attention given to the Lehman scandal.  This shining example of Wall Street malefaction should have been an influential factor toward making the financial reform bill significantly more effective than the worthless sham it became.

Greg Smith’s resignation from Goldman Sachs could become the game-changing event, motivating Wall Street’s investment banks to finally change their ways.  Matt Taibbi seems to think so:

This always had to be the endgame for reforming Wall Street.  It was never going to happen by having the government sweep through and impose a wave of draconian new regulations, although a more vigorous enforcement of existing laws might have helped.  Nor could the Occupy protests or even a monster wave of civil lawsuits hope to really change the screw-your-clients, screw-everybody, grab-what-you-can culture of the modern financial services industry.

Real change was always going to have to come from within Wall Street itself, and the surest way for that to happen is for the managers of pension funds and union retirement funds and other institutional investors to see that the Goldmans of the world aren’t just arrogant sleazebags, they’re also not terribly good at managing your money.

*   *   *

These guys have lost the fear of going out of business, because they can’t go out of business.  After all, our government won’t let them.  Beyond the bailouts, they’re all subsisting daily on massive loads of free cash from the Fed.  No one can touch them, and sadly, most of the biggest institutional clients see getting clipped for a few points by Goldman or Chase as the cost of doing business.

The only way to break this cycle, since our government doesn’t seem to want to end its habit of financially supporting fraud-committing, repeat-offending, client-fleecing banks, is for these big “muppet” clients to start taking their business elsewhere.

In the mean time, the rest of us will be keeping our fingers crossed.


 

Government Should Listen To These Wealth Managers

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A good deal of Mitt Romney’s appeal as a Presidential candidate is based on his experience as a private equity fund manager – despite the “vulture capitalist” moniker, favored by some of his critics.  Many voters believe that America needs someone with more “business sense” in the White House.  Listening to Mitt Romney would lead one to believe that America’s economic and unemployment problems will not be solved until “government gets out of the way”, allowing those sanctified “job creators” to bring salvation to the unemployed masses.  Those who complained about how the system has been rigged against the American middle class during the past few decades have found themselves accused of waging “class warfare”.  We are supposed to believe that Romney speaks on behalf of “business” when he lashes out against “troublesome” government regulations which hurt the corporate bottom line and therefore – all of America.

Nevertheless, the real world happens to be the home of many wealth managers – entrusted with enormous amounts of money by a good number of rich people and institutional investors – who envision quite a different role of government than the mere nuisance described by Romney and like-minded individuals.  If only our elected officials – and more of the voting public – would pay close attention to the sage advice offered by these wealth managers, we might be able to solve our nation’s economic and unemployment problems.

Last summer, bond guru Bill Gross of PIMCO  lamented the Obama administration’s obliviousness to the need for government involvement in short-term job creation:

Additionally and immediately, however, government must take a leading role in job creation.  Conservative or even liberal agendas that cede responsibility for job creation to the private sector over the next few years are simply dazed or perhaps crazed.  The private sector is the source of long-term job creation but in the short term, no rational observer can believe that global or even small businesses will invest here when the labor over there is so much cheaper.  That is why trillions of dollars of corporate cash rest impotently on balance sheets awaiting global – non-U.S. – investment opportunities.  Our labor force is too expensive and poorly educated for today’s marketplace.

*   *   *

In the near term, then, we should not rely solely on job or corporate-directed payroll tax credits because corporations may not take enough of that bait, and they’re sitting pretty as it is.  Government must step up to the plate, as it should have in early 2009.

In my last posting, I discussed a February 2 Washington Post commentary by Mohamed El-Erian (co-CEO of PIMCO).  El-Erian emphasized that – despite the slight progress achieved in reducing unemployment – the situation remains at a crisis level, demanding immediate efforts toward resolution:

Have no doubt, this is a complex, multiyear effort that involves several government agencies acting in a delicate, coordinated effort.  It will not happen unless our political leaders come together to address what constitutes America’s biggest national challenge. And sustained implementation will not be possible nor effective without much clearer personal accountability.

One would think that, given all this, it has become more than paramount for Washington to elevate – not just in rhetoric but, critically, through sustained actions – the urgency of today’s unemployment crisis to the same level that it placed the financial crisis three years ago.  But watching the actions in the nation’s capital, I and many others are worried that our politicians will wait at least until the November elections before dealing more seriously with the unemployment crisis.

On October 31, I focused on the propaganda war waged against the Occupy Wall Street movement, concluding the piece with my expectation that Jeremy Grantham’s upcoming third quarter newsletter would provide some sorely-needed, astute commentary on the situation.  Jeremy Grantham, rated by Bloomberg BusinessWeek as one of the Fifty Most Influential Money Managers, released an abbreviated edition of that newsletter one month later than usual, due to a busy schedule.  In addition to expressing some supportive comments about the OWS movement, Grantham noted that he would provide a special supplement, based specifically on that subject.  Finally, on February 5, Mr. Grantham made good on his promise with an opinion piece in the Financial Times entitled, “People now see it as a system for the rich only”:

For the time being, in the US our corporate and governmental system backed surprisingly by the Supreme Court has become a plutocracy, designed to prolong, protect and intensify the wealth and influence of those who already have the wealth and influence.  What the Occupy movement indicates is that a growing number of people have begun to recognise this in spite of the efficiency of capital’s propaganda machines.  Forty years of no pay increase in the US after inflation for the average hour worked should, after all, have that effect.  The propaganda is good but not that good.

*   *   *

In 50 years economic mobility in the US has gone from the best to one of the worst.  The benefits of the past 40 years of quite normal productivity have been abnormally divided between the very rich (and corporations) and the workers.

Indeed “divide” is not the right word, for, remarkably, the workers received no benefit at all, while the top 0.1 per cent has increased its share nearly fourfold in 35 years to a record equal to 1929 and the gilded age.

But the best propaganda of all is that the richest 400 people now have assets equal to the poorest 140m.  If that doesn’t disturb you, you have a wallet for a heart.  The Occupiers’ theme should be simple:  “More sensible assistance for the working poor, more taxes for the rich.”

I’ve complained many times about President Obama’s decision to scoff at using the so-called “Swedish solution” of putting the zombie banks through temporary receivership.  Back in November of 2010, economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds discussed the consequences of the administration’s failure to do what was necessary:

If our policy makers had made proper decisions over the past two years to clean up banks, restructure debt, and allow irresponsible lenders to take losses on bad loans, there is no doubt in my mind that we would be quickly on the course to a sustained recovery, regardless of the extent of the downturn we have experienced.  Unfortunately, we have built our house on a ledge of ice.

*   *   *

As I’ve frequently noted, even if a bank “fails,” it doesn’t mean that depositors lose money.  It means that the stockholders and bondholders do.  So if it turns out, after all is said and done, that the bank is insolvent, the government should get its money back and the remaining entity should be taken into receivership, cut away from the stockholder liabilities, restructured as to bondholder liabilities, recapitalized, and reissued.  We did this with GM, and we can do it with banks.  I suspect that these issues will again become relevant within the next few years.

The plutocratic tools in control of our government would never allow the stockholders and bondholders of those “too-big-to-fail” banks to suffer losses as do normal people after making bad investments.  It’s hard to imagine that Mitt Romney would take a tougher stance against those zombie banks than what we have seen from the Obama administration.

Our government officials – from across the political spectrum – would be wise to follow the advice offered by these fund managers.  A political hack whose livelihood is based entirely on passive income has little to offer in the way of “business sense” when compared to a handful of fund managers, entrusted to use their business and financial acumen to preserve so many billions of dollars.  Who speaks for business?  It should be those business leaders who demonstrate concern for the welfare of all human beings in America.


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